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Gerry O’Regan: His talent was taking the road less travelled

NEWSPAPERS are in so many ways tribal affairs -- and if you were not in the Sindo tribe Aengus Fanning could be a difficult man to really get to know.

Of course, there was more often than not the usual incidental banter entwined with the self-deprecating personality. But for many of us, the private man remained inscrutable, concealed behind a carefully constructed "sure don't mind me, lads, I'm only here" persona.

Aengus grew up in Tralee town and I was from three miles 'out the road' on the Dingle Peninsula. I did not know him back then but his brother Conell was of my era in Tralee CBS.

However, some years later our paths would first cross as reporters in the old 'Independent' Abbey Street newsroom.

Some of the quixotic personality traits which would later distinguish his long-running editorship were already manifest.

Perhaps most of all a scarcely concealed restless energy.

The fact that he had an extremely low boredom threshold was palpable, whether engaging in the tittle-tattle of newspaper gossip or getting animated with more serious talk about the future of Irish farmers in what was then known as the 'Common Market'.

We used to sit next to one another in that newsroom. I can still picture him, typewriter clacking, competitive, restless and self-absorbed. He struck me then as somebody searching for something -- part philosophical, part real -- not quite able to articulate what it might be.

But what is certain is that Aengus Fanning certainly found that 'something' when he was made Editor of the 'Sunday Independent'.

His longevity and tangible achievements in the job over almost three decades need no further comment.

But it would be easy in retrospect to take his countless newspaper achievements for granted. His greatest achievement was steering his newspaper through much turbulence -- often taking the road less travelled -- because it was the right direction to go.

An air of aloof semi-detachment remained and yet he could in conversation become suddenly almost lyrical.

It might be provoked by some of his favourite themes, the importance of swashbuckling capitalism or the dark side of irredentist nationalism.

There was also a Rabelaisian side to Aengus, manifest in his eclectic enthusiasms, ranging from jazz, to the unlikely mix of cricket and Kerry football.

But there was also over the years a wistful quality to some of our conversations.

I remember one occasion he called me into his office. He pointed to a picture of the Kerry minor team, of which he had once been a member, hanging on the wall.

"Maybe I should have stayed with the Gaelic and ditched the rugby," he mused.

After that, we had a typical fairly wayward Aengus conversation, as he explored his thoughts on what he believed to be the least talented Kerry team ever to have won an All-Ireland.

As is well known by those of us who live in the area, Aengus was an enduring presence in Blackrock village over many years.

His car forever badly parked, he could be seen at the most unlikely times outside Insomnia cafe, sipping his cappuccino, usually ensconced with Anne Harris, replete with bundles of newspapers.

I passed him on countless occasions over the years when walking through the village on my way to work.

Sometimes he was up for conversation -- sometimes he resorted to the prerogative for privacy which is the right of a person who has much on their mind.

The last time we talked was about two months ago. He had been absent from the office due to illness. But as we sat on the public bench in the village's main street, he spoke hopefully about the future.

And yet part of him seemed especially contemplative.

"I wouldn't mind getting back to work. Sure 'tis getting a bit boring hanging around,'' he remarked in those familiar accentuated Kerry vowels.

I reminded him that he had once said to me about his job as editor: "I don't love it, I don't hate it. I'm just addicted to it.''

"You're right there, Gerry boy," he said. Those were the last words he spoke to me.

YESTERDAY morning, as I walked through the village, sensing the familiarity of the Insomnia cafe and those overcrowded car-parking spaces, the place suddenly seemed faintly diminished.

So for a few minutes, I sat on that same bench where I had spoken to Aengus for the last time. Lost in my own thoughts, I paid silent tribute to one of our great newspapermen.

Gerry O'Regan is Editor of the Irish Independent

Irish Independent